Anthony Riches’ Empire series: Sexist narrative patterns

Anthony Riches, Wounds of Honour, Arrows of Fury, Fortress of Spears, The Leopard Sword, The Wolf’s Gold and The Eagle’s Vengeance.

Discussion of narrative pattern of sexual violence follows.

Feeling low and brainless, I read through all of these in a single night and day. They are, to use a term of art vouchsafed to me, “Roman bollocks,” set during the reign of Commodus, the son and successor of Marcus Aurelius (the Commodus of whom Dio gives us such a lovely picture beheading ostriches in the arena). A young Roman man of good family takes service with an auxiliary cohort in Britain under an assumed name because his family has been condemned for treason, rapidly becomes a centurion, hack slash march curse shield-bash male homosociality. Details of military equipment and the political landscape are well-researched; details of the Roman social world and the Roman mindset, rather less so: Riches has imported the mindset of a more gleefully brutal modern infantry regiment into Roman clothing. (Hack, slash, march, curse, march.)

An interesting pattern emerges over the course of six books. Riches has chosen to deal with a primarily masculine world, that of the Roman army on campaign, but in Wounds of Honour he introduces Felicia, a Roman married woman of good family with medical training who will be the Only Notable Named Woman for three books. (And one of Damn Few for the next three.) Not only does Felicia take up with a centurion after her first husband dies, she doesn’t even bring a female servant with her, or acquire one. Most of her time on screen is spent being menaced by rape, only to be rescued at the last moment – at least once, and sometimes more often, in each book.

In book four, The Leopard Sword, Riches introduces a second notable named woman, Annia. Guess her profession. Go on. I’ll wait.


If you guessed “prostitute”, top marks, well done. A presumably successful businesswoman, Annia is victimised regularly by her business partner, who is the local equivalent of an underworld kingpin, and does not seem to realise that the men who work for him as her guards could turn on her at his order. Annia is also threatened with rape in the course of this novel! But instead of one of the last-minute rescues experienced by Felicia, she gets to have the completed experience. She is rescued from death but not from penetrative violation.

The nice mostly-respectable Roman matron, in the course of six books and multiple close calls, has not experienced a completed rape. The woman who has made a career out of selling her body, on the other hand?

Hmmm. Hmmm. *side-eyes*

In the fifth book, to round off the well-rounded array of female characters, we’re introduced to an Evil Woman Who Manipulates Men Through Sex, by the way.

So that’s an interesting pattern of sexist thinking and unexamined sexism on display. It’s amazing what some people probably don’t even realise they’re doing.

3 thoughts on “Anthony Riches’ Empire series: Sexist narrative patterns

  1. Riches is pretty damn squeamish about slavery in general. There is one character – I think – who is actually a slave, but he acts like a free man and nobody finds anything odd about this.

    Roman mindset fail.

  2. So, not the Roman Empire of Lindsey Davis, or Ruth Downie, or Rosemary Sutcliff then. Nor even the homosocial infantry setting of the Sharpe TV series. Complete unawareness of the professional and political involvement of Roman women of all social classes, and the traveling city aspects of ancient armies. Apparently never read any first-hand sources, either.

    Will be passing on this, thanks.

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